By Ross Stapleton-Gray
Fiddler on the Roof, running through Aug. 2 at Berkeley Playhouse, is the 1964 Broadway classic about Tevye, the poor milkman of the village of Anatevka, and his five daughters. Adapted from the late 1800s writings of Sholem Aleichem, a Russian Jew and advocate of Yiddish as a Jewish national language, Fiddler is as much a play as a musical, filled with witty banter, wry comedy, and compelling story.
While woven through with what will be to many strange customs, rituals, and assumptions, it’s told in a way to both explain and relish, and never to put off. The musical’s lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, commented in a 2004 NPR interview on how little Yiddish made it into the lyrics. Other than the expressions “l’chaim” (“to life”) and “mazel tov” (a blessing), for example, you won’t hear it, even as you’re well immersed in a culture that is, at play’s start, a many-centuries-old tapestry of tradition. “Tradition,” the iconic opening ensemble song, was actually a late addition to the musical, a summary, looking back on what the creators realized they were trying to tell: the musical is about a man evaluating the traditions that have been the warp and woof of his life and his community, even as they are being unraveled.
This Fiddler is a perfect match for the dark, timber-ribbed cavern of the Berkeley Playhouse’s theater. (The building was originally designed by Julia Morgan for a Presbyterian church, and, as Tevye gazes up into the rafters during his many one-sided conversations with his God, you can readily imagine someone up there listening.) The thrust stage has no front curtains, and director Jon Tracy has chosen to put all of the village of Anatevka on it, all the time: the actors drift in, in costume and character, before the lights come down, to sit on either side amidst a jumble of set pieces, interacting with the action center stage as appropriate, or flooding in, with or without chairs, tables, laundry or luggage, to fill it. Whatever may happen, it happens to and in that whole village, affecting everyone in some way. (And when outsiders do appear — Russian Christians in jarringly bright red, or the stolidly ominous constable — we see it as an invasion… they enter, usually unwelcome, always alien.)
Michael RJ Campbell gives an excellent performance as Tevye, and Sarah Mitchell, a Berkeley Playhouse regular, is perfectly paired as Golde.
High points for me were Tevye’s first solo (“If I Were a Rich Man”), and his second-act duet (“Do You Love Me?”) with Golde. The show hinges on Tevye, as observer and interlocutor, and Campbell provides a solid foundation from the start on which to work. In the later number, he and Mitchell distill the lives of these people, children, growing into men and women, into a song, from their own arranged marriage, to a more than grudging respect and even (though it’s a question they’ve never thought entitled to ask) love for each other.
(We’ve had a vigorous debate in our own household about Fiddler… to paraphrase the old Jewish question, “Is it good for the girls?” Any play set in turn-of-the-last-century Russia will show a society where women are seldom more than chattel; Tevye’s five daughters would look forward, at best, to arranged marriages to well-off men. But it’s clear, in how “tradition” is clung to, or questioned and challenged, that Tevye’s daughters all have a brighter future than they might have been told to expect, and increasingly of their own to make.)
Other enjoyable performances are delivered by Jennie Brick as the matchmaker Yente, a plump whirlwind of gossip, kvetching and advice; Jade Shojaee as Hodel, whose “Far from the Home I Love” is the musical’s most poignant ballad; and Grace Ng as a lissome Chava, doing double duty as the Fiddler. All three are new to the Berkeley Playhouse stage, and welcome additions.
As with many Berkeley Playhouse productions, the show is delightfully choreographed (by Matthew McCoy) and with its large cast the stage is a sea of dance in numerous ensemble scenes. And even if you’ve seen a production of “Fiddler,” this show’s treatment of Tevye’s “Dream” will likely make your jaw drop in giddy awe.
One device I don’t think is necessary: the day of the week is intermittently projected on the set’s back wall, an expanse of staggered vertical boards to evoke a wooden Tsarist Russian village, but which made the text nearly impossible to read from where I sat. But it’s clear to the audience that the Jewish sabbath is the looming, or that weeks are passing, etc… we were shown, in the action, no need to tell us, too.
This show could have also enjoyed a much larger orchestra–the scant half dozen or so musicians aren’t quite a match for the more than 40 actors. One of the show’s early ensemble numbers, “Sabbath Prayer,” is performed a cappella, though, a beautiful choice. And the sound system, which has sometimes been a weak point in past Berkeley Playhouse productions, is flawless in this one.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through Aug. 2 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley. Showtimes: Wednesday July 15 and Thursday July 16, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 1 and 6 p.m.; Sundays, noon and 5 p.m. Ticket prices: $23 to $60, with a pay-what-you-can night on July 16. Group rates available: Call the box office at 510-845-8542, ext. 351.
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